What 'Clueless,' 'Grease' And Other Teen Movies Teach Us About Money

Spoiler: There are usually financial consequences for stupidity.

You should be thinking about how to pay your kid’s college tuition or impress upon your high schooler the importance of studying so he or she can attend a good college and someday have a great job. You want to be doing that. But your mind is someplace else.

So, you could turn to some teen movies ― from your youth or more recent ones. After all, a lot of them are more than just silly films. They often have something meaningful to say, and sometimes even about money.

If you’re looking for inspiration, we’ve put together a list of some teen movies, in chronological order, that include lessons about capitalism and cold hard cash. You could even watch a few of these with your kids, though some of the films have raunchy themes and language that may leave you or your teen squirming.

But if you’re looking for a way to kill a bit of time and maybe pick up some inspirational financial nuggets of wisdom, look no further:

Grease (1978)

We’ll start off with one of the all-time most beloved movie musicals. There may not seem to be much here that falls into the category of a financial lesson, but singer Frankie Avalon appears in a cameo as Frenchy’s guardian angel, explaining to her the value of an education. (Frenchy dropped out of high school to go to beauty school, and then she dropped out of that, too.) He sings, “Your future’s so unclear now, What’s left of your career now? Can’t even get a trade-in on your smile.” Later in the song, he urges, “If you go for your diploma you could join the steno pool. Turn in your teasin’ comb and go back to high school.” That’s good advice: The average high school dropout made about $10,386 less per year than a high school graduate and $36,424 less than a college graduate, as of 2012.

Bonus lesson: You’ll learn that it’s important to monitor your purchases and make sure they stay in good condition if you’re going to continue to use them, as high school seniors Rizzo and Kenickie discover before fooling around in a car. Kenickie produces what he calls his “25-cent insurance policy,” which is a condom. But it’s broken. “How could it break?” Rizzo asks. “I bought it when I was in the seventh grade,” Kenickie responds.

Risky Business (1983)

The plot centers on a high school senior, Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise), who doesn’t exactly act like a model teenager when his parents go away on a trip. In fact, at one point, his father’s Porsche ends up in a lake. That leads to Joel turning his parents’ house into a brothel for a night so he can earn enough money to pay for the car repairs. This also happens to be the night that a recruiter from Princeton decides to pay Joel a visit. Much comedy and mayhem ensue, but, really, the film is about the financial consequences of being stupid, and of the hard work you’ll be in for to fix your costly money mistakes.

Bonus lesson: Maybe you and your teen will pick up some tips on how not to do business with shady characters. Guido, a businessman of sorts, offers a piece of advice to Joel that we’d all do well to heed: “Let me give you a little advice so you know. In times of economic uncertainty, never ever [expletive] with another man’s livelihood.”

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Not only is this considered one of the best teen movies of all time, it’s a movie that was in 2016 selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s about five high school students who have to report for Saturday detention. The entire day, they’re supposed to be in the school library (an amazingly spacious library ... all schools should be so lucky). While the film appears to be a comedy about five completely different personalities and how they interact and clash with the uptight high school principal, it’s really a look at how ― no matter how much money your family has or doesn’t have ― we all have more in common with each other than we think.

Bonus lesson: You don’t have to be raking in the big bucks to have power in an organization. As Carl the custodian observes in a mini-monologue: “You guys think I’m just some untouchable peasant? Serf? Peon? Well, maybe so. But following a broom around after [expletive] like you for the last eight years, I’ve learned a couple of things. I look through your letters. I look through your lockers. I listen to your conversations — you don’t know that, but I do. I am the eyes and ears of this institution, my friends.”

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Matthew Broderick plays the title character, a high school senior who fakes being sick in order to stay home from school. That’s the simple plot. Of course, if you’ve seen the movie, you know there’s a little more to it: Hijinks ensue as Bueller, his girlfriend Sloane Peterson and best friend Cameron Frye accompany him into Chicago and have pretty much the best day ever, albeit with a few bumps in the road. It seems like simply a joyous and fun teen movie, but if you believe time is money, you’ll appreciate the message that what you do with your time is important, and you shouldn’t squander it. As Bueller says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Bonus lesson: If you’re paying attention to Bueller’s teacher, memorably played by Ben Stein, he gives a pretty decent economics lecture about how in 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression, passed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which raised tariffs in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. “It did not work,” Stein’s economics teacher says, “and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression. Today we have a similar debate over this.” He then goes on about the Laffer Curve. The students, however, are not getting much out of this lecture. Small wonder Bueller skipped school on this day.

Say Anything (1989)

John Cusack stars as Lloyd Dobler. Even if you haven’t seen this movie, you’re probably familiar with the famous scene in which a forlorn Lloyd plays “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel on a boombox at night, outside, underneath ex-girlfriend Diane Court’s window.

Anyway, the entire movie is basically a life lesson on how money can make or break our lives. Diane’s father, Jim, is worried that Lloyd isn’t taking his future very seriously (he wants to be a professional kickboxer: “Kickboxing. Sport of the future,” Lloyd says, and given this was made in 1989, we’re still waiting for that). While Jim may be right about his daughter’s beau, he doesn’t exactly have much to brag about. Jim has been embezzling money from residents who work at a retirement home that he owns. We won’t spoil everything, given that it’s only been 30 years and maybe it’s still on your “to watch soon” list, but the embezzling thing doesn’t work out too well for Jim.

Bonus lesson: While financial independence may be important, there’s a lot of value in dependence, too. That is, relying on someone and not always having to fly solo.

Plus, you may get some good career advice. As Lloyd says, “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.

Clueless (1995)

Alicia Silverstone plays Cher Horowitz, who is almost 16 and living in a Beverly Hills mansion with her father Mel, a high-powered, fantastically rich attorney. Just about everybody’s rich in this movie, and while it may seem like a love story between Cher and her ex-stepbrother, the main message is really that there are more important things in life than money. As Cher sagely offers up at one point, “It’s like that book I read in the ninth grade that said, ‘Tis a far, far better thing doing stuff for other people.’”

Bonus lesson: The movie may have come out almost a quarter-century ago, but Cher has some timely thoughts about the financial benefits that immigrants bring to the country. During a classroom debate, she says, “So, like, right now for example. The Haitians need to come to America. But some people are all, ‘What about the strain on our resources?’ Well it’s like when I had this garden party for my father’s birthday, right? I put RSVP ’cause it was a sit-down dinner. But some people came that, like, did not RSVP. I was, like, totally buggin’. I had to haul ass to the kitchen, redistribute the food, and squish in extra place settings. But by the end of the day it was, like, the more the merrier. And so if the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians. And in conclusion may I please remind you it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty. Thank you very much.”

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

In a nutshell, this is a movie about a couple of teen romances: Cameron James (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is head over heels for Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik), and Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), a “bad boy” who is paired with Bianca’s sister Kat (Julia Stiles). It’s a little hard to explain in a handful of sentences, but here’s an attempt: Cameron wants to date Bianca. Meanwhile, the girls’ overprotective father doesn’t want either of them to be in a relationship right now. (“What are the two house rules? Number One: No dating till you graduate. Number Two: No dating till you graduate.”) Eventually, he agrees that Bianca can start dating once Kat does, knowing that Kat is antisocial and that the odds of that happening are slim. So Cameron asks Patrick to ask Kat out, and, well, you’ll just have to see the movie. But the main financial lesson here may be that if you can’t fix a problem on your own, hire somebody to fix it for you. After all, it’s not Cameron but Joey (Andrew Keegan), the film’s antagonist, who ends up paying Patrick to ask out Kat.

Bonus lesson: There’s a fine lesson in this movie about the art of negotiation and that you should never go with the first offer. Joey offers $20 to Patrick to take out Kat. Patrick doesn’t seem convinced, and so Joey offers $30. And then Patrick muses, “Well, let’s think about this ... we go to the movies. That’s 15 bucks. We get popcorn; that’s $53. And she’ll want Raisinets, all right? So we’re looking at 75 bucks.” Joey responds with: “This isn’t a negotiation. Take it or leave it, trailer park.” Patrick counters with, “Fifty bucks and we got a deal, Fabio.”

Easy A (2010)

The extremely talented and winsome Emma Stone plays the lead in what’s probably considered a modern-day classic teen movie, and in so many ways, this film is a business parable more than a personal finance one. But, still, there’s a financial message. The plot centers on Olive Penderghast, who’s 17 years old. She lies about going on a date so she can get out of camping with her best friend’s parents. It’s a harmless white lie ― or should have been. Unfortunately for Olive, after the weekend, she tells her friend another lie: that she lost her virginity on the date. The lie is overheard, and things get out of hand, as they usually do in movies. Olive ends up embracing the stereotype of high school tramp, and pretty soon, she is known as a girl who will sleep (only not really sleep, wink-wink) with anybody.

So what can one learn about personal finance from “Easy A”? Well, it’s a movie about how your reputation is pretty much everything ― an important lesson in this age of social media, when missteps can affect everything from college admission to career success. To increase their popularity, boys start offering Olive gift cards in exchange for permission to say they had sex with her. She never does have sex with these high school guys, mind you. She’s prostituting her reputation, not herself.

But there’s definitely a lesson here about the doors that can open ― and shut ― for somebody based on their reputation.

Bonus lesson: If you’re hurting your reputation in exchange for monetary gain or for any other reason, it’s smart to have thought things through. One character offers Olive advice and foreshadowing when she says, “I just don’t want this ‘thing’ you’re going through to define your life. Olive, do what you got to do, let your freak flag fly. Just make sure you have an exit strategy.

A bonus-bonus lesson. Olive also clearly has seen a few teen movies in her time, some of them on this list, and recognizes that she will have to clean up her mess and that she can’t rely on circumstances to rescue her.

Whatever happened to chivalry?” Olive asks. “Does it only exist in ’80s movies? I want John Cusack holding a boombox outside my window. I wanna ride off on a lawnmower with Patrick Dempsey. I want Jake from ‘Sixteen Candles’ waiting outside the church for me. I want Judd Nelson thrusting his fist into the air because he knows he got me. Just once I want my life to be like an ’80s movie, preferably one with a really awesome musical number for no apparent reason. But no, no. John Hughes did not direct my life.

This story is part of the series “How To Afford A Teenager,” supported by Relay. All content with the “supported by” label is editorially independent.

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